Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Beyond The Barriers @ Howletts

This is a long post with a LOT of pictures!  You have been warned! 

Just before Christmas I was sat with Steve on the sofa, casually flicking through various channels on the tellybox. I was on leave, recovering from a nasty virus the week before, and didn't have to be back at work until the first week of January. It was a pretty relaxed time.

Steve was perched on the sofa, cushion on his lap, laptop balanced on top. We were talking about nothing in particular, when he suddenly looked up and said "you have to see this, you would love it".

The 'this' in question was a photography experience at either Howletts or Port Lympne, the two Wildlife Parks owned by the Aspinell Foundation. As I read up on the experience days, I got more and more excited by the idea.
The premise was pretty simple, you get to go beyond the barriers with your camera and up close and personal with the animals to get some brilliant shots. You have the Aspinall photographer, Dave Rolfe, with you for the day, who can give you advice and information, and you also get the benefit of the keepers' wealth of knowledge and experience as they tell you about the animals in their care.
I absolutely loved this idea - I'm a big fan of both parks anyway, and the concept of getting that bit closer to the animals was just too good to miss out on.
Both days were pretty similar, but Howletts is just down the road from me (about 6 minutes door to door with a fair wind) and I also preferred the idea of their day as it involved getting a bit more up close and personal with the animals as opposed to being on the back of a land-rover. Plus which Howletts had a baby rhino. Who could say no to his little face?!
Now, the experiences are not cheap. The day costs £195 and this does not include lunch.  However Christmas and my birthday were coming up, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to drop some hints. My sister, after I told her about the day, was also really keen to do it, and seeing as her birthday is only three weeks before mine, it made sense for us to go for it together. The end result was that we were both booked onto the photography experience on the first weekend that it was available on for the new season.
I met Lotts at Howletts bright and early on our Sunday, and after a quick safety briefing and cup of coffee, we were off in our group of eight, headed to the rhino enclosure. 
Dave advised us to switch our white balance to cloudy as this would help to bring out the differentiation in the rhino's skin.  I looked at him blankly, handed him my camera and he did it for me.  I had decided at the last minute the night before to switch to my old Nikon that I haven't used in about three years and I had forgotten 1) where everything was on the menu and 2) that it wasn't a touch screen, so it was taking me ages to find anything.  I also had my Canon with me, whilst my sister was using her favourite Lumix.
I really did not know what to expect, but we got to the Black Rhino enclosure and waited for the keeper, who came out, opened the first barrier and let us through.  All that separated us from the rhino's was a low fence, and people started snapping away at the beautiful creatures out in the field.
Then the keeper bought out the food and the rhino's suddenly got a lot closer.  As in, nose to nose closer.
When I thought it couldn't get much better than this, the keeper upped the stakes once more and told us we could stroke the rhino, and give her a good rub below her thigh.  At that moment the rhino rolled over, much like a blissed out dog getting a belly rub.  This was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, tickling a rhino's leg who was basically purring in pleasure.  All thoughts of photography went out of both of our heads.
As you can imagine we gathered quite a crowd of jealous onlookers!
After an amazing 15 minutes with the rhino, where we all got as many shots as we wanted, including some of the new rhino mum and her baby, Kasungu (we kept our distance as she was obviously very protective of her young) we moved onto the lions.
Now, it doesn't look like it, but that is a male and a female.  The male had to be castrated for medical reasons and shed his mane shortly afterwards! Again, we were let through the barrier and right up close to the fence.  Dave told us to press our camera's against the mesh to get the shots through it, although we had to be careful of our fingers.  If the lions came up to the fence, we were advised to step back. We were also advised to try and get eye contact with the animals as much as possible for the shots, but not to prolong it as this could be seen as aggressive.
Once again the keepers chucked food over the fence for the lions, helping us to get the shots that we were after. These guys were a lot harder to photograph - they moved surprisingly quickly, and their pacing up and down the fence meant that it was difficult to keep them in frame and in focus in time to take a picture.  It was at this moment that I switched to my Canon as it has a much faster shutter speed than the Nikon, and it was the only way that I could get any pictures.
After another wonderful 15 minutes with these giant cats, we moved on again to the first of the two tiger enclosures. The tigers were a whole different kettle of fish.

These two were some of my favourite animals of the entire day. First up was this handsome fellow who absolutely loved playing in his water, dunking his great head fully under, pawing at the meat that the keeper threw to him and shaking great shining droplets from his whiskers. His pads were enormous but he didn't make a sound as he moved around his enclosure.
We then moved onto see Arina, the beautiful female Siberian tiger, who was just incredibly friendly.  She came up to the fence as soon as we came through the barrier, chuffing at us, so close that she could lick our fingers through the mesh if we had wanted.
She also reared up when Dave asked her to, pressing her full weight and 8 feet of height up against the mesh, although I was too far away to get a picture of that. Arina has had a pretty sad start to life.  Both her brother, Kazimir and her were abandoned by their mother as cubs and have been hand-reared by the keepers. At about a year old, Kazimir succumbed to an epileptic fit and died. Arina herself also was born with brittle bones, had surgery early in her life to correct a limp and has a definite squint when you look at her face on, but is a beautiful big cat.
The final stop before lunch were the gorilla's.  Howletts and Port Lympne have one of the largest families of gorillas in captivity, and are world leaders in breeding and conservation of this highly endangered species, with over 130 successful births to date!

We were advised with the gorillas not to get too close, but instead to stand behind the protective glass and make sure our camera lenses were flat against it to obtain shots without a reflection.  We could also go up to the mesh, but in all honesty, these animals demand a lot of respect and you just don't want to get that close!  The gorillas would put on impulsive displays of strength and agility, running up and down the boundaries of their pen, banging the fence and throwing the straw into the air.
The odor is also incredibly strong with a definite waft of ammonia!  With the gorilla's we were advised to ensure that our flash was on if possible as it was needed to light their eyes and bring them out of their faces.
One of the female gorilla's came off slightly worse for wear in an altercation with one of the males, and lost one of her forearms as a result.  As you can see below though, she has fully recovered from her ordeal and seems perfectly content!
We had over half an hour with the gorillas, swapping between the two pens and just enjoying being so close to them.  Their keepers were on hand again, dropping food through the ceiling bars for them and answering any questions we had about them.
We split off into groups for lunch after this, and I used the opportunity to charge my camera battery which was wearing down a bit.  I wasn't too sure how much I would need in the afternoon and wanted to preserve as much as possible! We had an hour for lunch and were able to use some of that time to wander around the park, before heading back ot the Moloch Gibbons and Javan Langurs enclosure for our first stop after lunch.
Now I knew that we were getting up close and personal.  I just didn't realise how up close and personal until we were taken beyond the first barrier, down to the access gate, into the holding pen and then into the enclosure itself.  There was nothing between us and these beautiful and highly mischievous little monkeys!
Once again food was laid out on the tables for the monkeys, and then we just went crazy with our pictures.  The running comment seemed to be 'I can't believe I am doing this!'.  Everyone had the biggest, silliest grins plastered across their faces as we followed these monkeys around.
Of everything we could see that day, these little fella's were the ones I wanted to take home the most.  Just look at the personality in those faces!
The deer and antelope tour was where I really felt the lack of a decent zoom lens on my camera.  We were piled onto the back of an open air trailer attached to a tractor and sat on hay bales with giant sacks of carrots and feed perched precariously on the end.  The gates to the deer park opened, and we drove right into the centre and parked up.
Once there, the keeper jumped out and laid lines of feed out for the deer to graze on.  These are incredibly timid animals, so we kept our distance.  Even so, it was a while before the bravest deer could work up the courage to approach and chow down on lunch.  Tigers and their prey animals are a feature of Howletts, and many of the species of deer present in the deer park would be the natural prey for the tigers in the wild.
The shot of the day that everyone was after was one of the deer pronking (jumping in the air with all four hooves off the floor and the back arched).  Unfortunately, I didn't manage a single shot of this as they were just too quick, too far away and there were absolutely no signals that one was about to start - they just launched into it and stopped just as quickly!  I did however manage a shot of the newest addition to the park, the four day old baby fallow deer curled up in the hollow of a fallen tree.  Look closely and you can see it tucked away, camouflaged from predators.
The second to last stop on the day's adventures was the elephant pen, where a new arrival was getting settled in and had already made a rather positive impression on the ladies! We were told to stay out of trunk's reach as, and I quote the keeper here, 'if he gets hold of you with his trunk and takes you into the enclosure, I'm not positive I could get you back'. The words and warning were heeded and we all maintained a respectful distance from these gentle creatures, who move a lot faster than I would have otherwise given them credit for!
These creatures are also highly intelligent, able to navigate between their pens quickly and easily and roaming around a huge section of Howletts quite freely.  It's a little disconcerting seeing the tigers and the elephant pens so close to each other (you could see the tigers in the background) but they all seem to exist relatively harmoniously together, although one of the staff members did confess to me that they got a bit upset when the tigers started stalking one of the baby elephants when it was still very small.  The baby was never in any danger though.

Howletts Lemur Walk is where all visitors have the chance to get quite close to the animals as you walk a path through their enclosure, and the lemurs will often hang around on the path, keeping you company and balancing on the railings.
Once again though, we were allowed to go a lot closer and step over the railings into the enclosure proper as the keepers laid out food for them.
There are a lot of photo's in this section. Sorry. They are just so photogenic though! These are the black and white ruffed lemurs, who are the largest lemurs that live at Howletts.
There are also the red bellied lemurs, smaller and dinkier than the black and white ones, and the black and crowned lemurs. I think the keeper said that only the males have the black triangle on their head.
Just look at that face!  I think they look a bit like meercats. If you want to know how close we got, the little guy three pictures up spent a good 5 minutes sat on the foot of one of the other members of our group. He didn't dare move but just kept snapping away downwards at the top of the lemurs head.
Once we had finished with the lemurs, our day was officially over and we were free to roam the park as we pleased.  There were a couple of stops that I wanted to make, but we were agreed that we wouldn't linger for too long as by now we were shattered and were in the mood to start heading home!
A few tips here if you are planning on doing something similar:
1) Make sure your camera's are charged and you have your chargers with you to boost the batteries at lunch if you need to. You will take a lot of pictures

2) Make sure your memory cards are empty and bring spares. You will take a lot of pictures. One of the others on our tour hadn't emptied her memory card prior to the experience and by the time we got to the deer park she was desperately trying to delete old pictures to free up the space for new ones.

3) Bring additional zoom lenses but make sure you can whip them off quickly and into a convenient storage bag as the animals get a lot closer than you realise!

4) Wear comfortable shoes that you don't mind getting muddy

5) Don't bother with a packed lunch, just grab something at the cafe.

Other than that, if you have the opportunity to do something like this, I highly, highly recommend it.  It was a simply incredible experience and you don't have to be a pro with a camera - as long as you know your way around it, you can set it to auto and still get some brilliant shots.
Howlett's, this was an amazing day.  Thank you!